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Undue influence?

Ceri Thomas | 17:37 UK time, Tuesday, 2 January 2007

Some sense of perspective always helps: Today was not, thankfully, electing the new president of Ukraine or even a parish councillor. The vote which finds itself in the dock this morning, accused of being unsound, is our rather-less-serious piece of Christmas knockabout, the listeners' poll.

The Today programme logoThe question this year (in a country sometimes accused of being over-regulated) was what piece of legislation our audience would most like to repeal. The charge sheet alleges that the poll was fixed - rigged by the ruthless lobbying machine that is the Countryside Alliance to call for the repeal of the ban on hunting with dogs.

Was undue influence brought to bear?

The truth is that it's very hard to be sure. When we set up something like this we put some basic safeguards in place - you can't, for example, send multiple entries from the same computer - but it's impossible to be certain that every single vote was cast by an independent-minded individual who heard the arguments on the programme and decided, free from any outside influence, to take part.

We do know, of course, that the Alliance had a link on its website urging supporters to vote - but it's a big leap from there to the assumption that the link was wholly responsible for the clear-cut result of the poll. The Hunting Act is a controversial piece of legislation. Is anyone really surprised to find it on our listeners' blacklist?

"It should," says today's Independent rather portentously, "have been a bit of festive fun with a slightly serious political edge". Actually, I have news - our vote was a bit of festive fun with a slightly serious political edge. The problem comes when people try to treat it differently.

Years ago, in the pre-internet days when we asked people to write in to nominate their Personality of the Year, I remember dozens of identical postcards arriving in the office all written in the same hand, all stamped with a House of Commons postmark, and all nominating the same member of Parliament. My message to the slightly desperate MP all those years ago, to the commentators today, and to whoever complains next year that the vote has been rigged (as I'm sure they will) would be the same: "Calm down. You'll spoil it if you take it too seriously".


  • 1.
  • At 08:19 PM on 02 Jan 2007,
  • Jack Hughes wrote:


Is 2007 a good year to re-balance the "Today" prog ?

Less about Iraq, please. Less Westminster politics, less about english football.

That will leave more time for: Europe (you know - those nearby countries), other sports, women's sports, regional news. Maybe more science.

And please dump "thought for today".

  • 2.
  • At 09:13 PM on 02 Jan 2007,
  • Philip wrote:

Ceri, it may be some consolation to you that Lembit Opik was voted 'Lib Dem MP of the Year' on Iain Dale's site, so any claim that an internet poll can be a fair reflection of public opinion should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Which has to be good news for MORI, NOP et al...

  • 3.
  • At 01:14 AM on 03 Jan 2007,
  • J Westerman wrote:

If a poll is not to be taken seriously why bother to take it?
A series of slanted questions could, of course, have a political advantage.

  • 4.
  • At 03:43 AM on 03 Jan 2007,
  • Ken wrote:

The reason the Today Programme is taken so seriously is because of its affect on politics in this country. We have our own poll thank you – we vote for our members of Parliament who make the laws. A programme whose strap line - some years ago admittedly – was “we set the agenda” should not be trusted. The arrogant assumption that you have the right to set the agenda and interfere in our democracy is offensive to me and I assume many others. Sorry for taking this too seriously. It might be best to flag up in advance what bits we should laugh along to and what bits we should take seriously.

The UK broadcast media (half of which is the BBC) has its largely liberal, left of centre agenda and the political parties have caved in to this, knowing as they do that broadcast media has more influence than our MPs and their parties. This is why we now have parties with indistinguishable BBC-friendly policies and many voters have no-one credible to vote for – no wonder the participation level has dropped.

I also think the hunting ban was a stupid law, but Parliament decided to put it through and there is nothing you can do about it. This year you are trying to scrap laws – last year you were trying to make them.

Still, I guess it is holiday time so perhaps you thought, “hey let’s not take this too seriously, but wouldn’t it be fun to try to undermine British democracy and give voters even less reason to vote.”

Instead of questioning laws made by politicians we elected, why don’t you just get on and report the news. I know it’s boring, but someone’s got to do it. If you want to get into politics try getting elected. It has actually happened before, but ex-BBC people tend to end up in the Liberal or Labour Party (or as a “liberal” independent). Hey, perhaps one of you could join the Conservatives…...only joking of course.

  • 5.
  • At 08:15 AM on 03 Jan 2007,
  • A Cooke wrote:

Just an observation - but the 2006 Boxing Day hunts seemed to me to be better attended than usual, by people on foot. I believe there is change happening not just as an anti-Labour (nanny state) stance but as one that shows disdain to the whole of the UK political enviroment.

I understand that it's really difficult to do truly representative polls online - and that these polls shouldn't be taken too seriously.

The question, though, is how come your poll comes to be so widely reported in newspapers and on tv. This is much more of a problem, as here the context isn't properly given - just "a BBC poll says..."

If you can't control how other media organisations report your polls, perhaps you shouldn't do them...

  • 7.
  • At 10:48 AM on 03 Jan 2007,
  • Pietro Meeson wrote:

I have absolutely no views on hunting as a confirmed urban dweller. I took part in the Today poll and I voted for it as I deeply resented the amount of time spent in Parliament on it, compared to important issues and wanted to pay the government back. No one asked me to vote.

  • 8.
  • At 11:33 AM on 03 Jan 2007,
  • Bella Radford wrote:

The suggestion that this poll was rigged is madness! So what if the Countryside Alliance was encouraging its members to vote? One would have thought that equally the League Against Cruel Sports could have encouraged its members to vote also.... and perhaps they did! The anti-hunting legislation is badly written, impossible to police effectively and satisfies neither those who support hunting or those who don't.

It's presumably not beyond the wit of man to make the assumption that not only did Countryside Alliance supporters vote in favour of repealing this Act, but others as well. Or perhaps this will be ignored by those that wish to keep their heads in the sand and the toffs off their horses.....

I don't understand why it was so wrong for the CA to link to the vote. Surely thats how all votes work. In the General Election all the parties get out and canvas for support. However a major part of their activities is getting their core votes out lest they not be counted.

Obviously this poll wasn't a general election and suffers from all the vaugeries of internet polls. However enough people were obviously exercised enough to go click that button. I don't think it makes the result less valid.

  • 10.
  • At 12:11 PM on 03 Jan 2007,
  • Sam wrote:

I think the ban on hunting is actually deeply offensive to the majority of core labour voters.

'New Labour' has basically gone away from what traditional labour voters call socialism. But so as to not lose all the voters they fling a bit of flimley legislation at them in a vain attempt to show they are 'getting at the toffs' assuming that the working class electorate will enjoy seeing those percived as upper class being victimised and distracting them from the fact labour stopped caring about the working classes long ago.

So it suggests that Tony Blair does actually think working class people are stupid. Its also bad politics because the conservatives will now get a lot of votes just becuase they will overturn the ban.

Also the legislation itself doesn't work anyway, everything still happens just the same, except the fox gets shot which means a old weak fox cannot be selected over a strong young fox, because down the barrel of a shotgun how can you tell?

  • 11.
  • At 12:35 PM on 03 Jan 2007,
  • Neil wrote:

Perhaps you should add the standard Slashdot poll disclaimer:
This whole thing is wildly inaccurate. Rounding errors, ballot stuffers, dynamic IPs, firewalls. If you're using these numbers to do anything important, you're insane.

  • 12.
  • At 01:23 PM on 03 Jan 2007,
  • steve page wrote:

This is why democracy [snout- counting] has such a hard time in being taken seriously as a political instrument. People who find the result offensive to them personally will ALWAYS suggest the vote was rigged or that the people involved were corrupt.
This was true when the boundaries were re-drawn in favour of new labour, allowing them to create a government with under 32% of the electrol vote, however to suggest that the vote was rigged over a ban on hunting is plainly ludicrous, when the reality is that the legislation was a farce from inception; the people knew it, the goverment knew it and the authorities knew it, however even though it was unworkable it became law as an instrument of appeasement to the pseudo-intellectuals on the left, somewhat similar to another act of insanity, the invasion of iraq, at the expense of everyone it seems except the sycophantics in the labour party.

  • 13.
  • At 01:59 PM on 03 Jan 2007,
  • Mark E wrote:

So some people are trying to claim that the vote is rigged because a group tried to get others to vote for their cause?

Hmmm! I seem to remember the Labour Party sticking a note through my letter box before the last general election, they obviously tried to rig the election. The result must be declared void.

But seriously isn't the whole point of votes that the party who motivates their supporters the most is the one that wins?

  • 14.
  • At 02:39 PM on 03 Jan 2007,
  • Jimbob wrote:

I don't know about this poll, but the Today programme poll for the guest editors was definately fixed - I work in a University geography department and we mass-emailed all our students to make them vote and ensure the geography themed editors won!

  • 15.
  • At 02:49 PM on 03 Jan 2007,
  • Bransby wrote:

In response to Ken's remarks about the influence of the Today programme, and their use of the strap line "we set the agenda", I would assume that meant the news agenda, not the political.

It also seems that suggesting that a Today programme poll can "undermine British democracy" sounds just a touch hysterical, and even if it were to be true, wouldn't that suggest a very weak democracy in this country, one that can be de-stabilised by a poll of a very small demographic of people, that being, those who listen to Today.

If possible, I'd also like Ken to tell me what the BBC-friendly policies are from these indistinguishable liberal parties; a license-fee settlement below inflation perhaps?

  • 16.
  • At 03:48 PM on 03 Jan 2007,
  • mikey c wrote:

I don't know about polls, but judging by this, people certainly take blog comments too seriously.

  • 17.
  • At 04:12 PM on 03 Jan 2007,
  • Ian wrote:

Whether or not you consider lobbying a poll like this to be a kind of vote-rigging, it is inevitable that this kind of poll will always attract the people who feel the most strongly about the issue.

In this case, those of us in favour of the ban on hunting with dogs had already got what we wanted. I didn't feel strongly about any of the other options, so I didn't have anything to vote for. (And significantly, there was no option to vote against repealing the hunting law.)

None of the other options were anything like as emotive/controversial as the hunting option, so it is not surprising that participation was heavily skewed towards those opposed to the ban.

  • 18.
  • At 04:22 PM on 03 Jan 2007,
  • Bernard wrote:

Voting does not matter in a democratic society, the powers that be decide the outcome no matter what the voters choose.

A case in point:

Our local council housing Dept. sent out a ballot to decide if people should be allowed to own dogs.

Out of hundreds of residents in the area only a few voted. Which would indicate that most people dont care one way or the other.

Anyway, the result after counting the votes was: 7 for owning dogs and 2 against.

Dogs were banned!

Now that's true demcracy. It's how G W Bush became president of the USA.

Happy New Year.

Neil obviously has the right idea. Stating When we set up something like this we put some basic safeguards in place - you can't, for example, send multiple entries from the same computer shows an obvious lack of knowledge about just how maniputable Internet polls, voting/etc can be. "Voting by proxy" has a different meaning on the WWW.

  • 20.
  • At 06:03 PM on 03 Jan 2007,
  • Andy Macdonald wrote:

Enough of petty voting! It's bad enough on the BBC, without using it for electing our government as well.
Replace self-serving politicians with a cross section of the population drawn as we do a jury. Start with it in the House of Lords, refine the system (some training courses and restraint of lobbying may be required) and then apply to the House of Commons.

  • 21.
  • At 08:31 PM on 03 Jan 2007,
  • Paul Bailey wrote:

I nominated the Foxhunting bill for repeal. I am no supporter of hunting but the issue was just a plain stupid target for New Labour. The world is collapsing around us with the Government at the centre of global violence, and we had time for this stupid stupid effort. Again we waste time and effort even discussing this nonsense. If you want to stop the hunting its easy within the law simply go and take pictures and have pictures published of the fat red 'men' on horses - the joke is on them. Yes I live in the country.

  • 22.
  • At 10:33 PM on 03 Jan 2007,
  • Paul Najman wrote:

'We set the Agenda' should be changed to 'We extract the soundbite'.

If, like me, you listen to Radio 5 in the morning, you'll know what I'm talking about. Every 1/4 hour they repeat a one-line headline dragged, kicking and screaming, out of an John Humphreys interviewee on Today.

And often it's of the '[politician] denies [spurious accusation]' variety!


  • 23.
  • At 01:28 AM on 04 Jan 2007,
  • John Clarke wrote:

All reader polls, phone-in polls etc. are statistically useless, as anyone with a decent GCSE in maths or statistics will tell you. Accurate polls require a random sample of the population to be questioned.

A reader poll of any kind is like going to the Tory party conference and asking the participants what party they will vote for in the next general election!

On second thoughts, that may not be a good analogy!! Substitute Labour for Tory if you wish.

  • 24.
  • At 03:13 AM on 04 Jan 2007,
  • Aaron McKenna wrote:

If it was "rigged", then surely that shows that the piece of legislation means a lot to a lot of people who would be willing to take part in an organised campaign? I may not personally agree with the result, but the method by which it was decided is not overly questionable. Just because a whole lot of Star Trek fans organised letter campaigns doesn't mean that the TV show was any less deserving of a life after cancellation than any other program on air in the '60's, but the Trekkies wrote their letters and today Star Trek is a brand name. So, the hunting campaigners wrote their letters in greater numbers than the anti-hunting people. Shows it's still a live political issue.

The bit I don't understand is why you shortlisted the suggestions and got rid of the whacky ones like abolishing all laws, leaving the field to tedious fox-hunting advocates. I would at least have liked to have seen how ID cards and Prevention of Terrorism fared.

I can't believe your software prevents voting on the full list.

The practice of shortlisting for this sort of poll is very common, and always leaves one with the suspicion that it's done to rig the poll in some way. Presumably in this case it was to give the impression that the public feels strongly about something, since had there been a longer (or even open like the US Presidency - why not?) list, the winner might not have commanded a majority.

  • 26.
  • At 12:08 PM on 04 Jan 2007,
  • Mark E wrote:

"Anyway, the result after counting the votes was: 7 for owning dogs and 2 against.

Dogs were banned!

Now that's true demcracy. It's how G W Bush became president of the USA.

Happy New Year.

I am not sure how it can be considered true democracy if the views of 2 people could over-ride the views of 7.

And I would also disagree with this being the way that George W Bush become president of the USA - at least in the US elections both candidates got about 50% of the vote each. I think the better case would be the UK elections where Labour won a "landslide" with the majority of people who voted voting against them.

  • 27.
  • At 05:41 PM on 04 Jan 2007,
  • Charles wrote:

It sounds to me that Ceri Hughes didn't get the answer he was hoping for. An accusation of vote rigging is serious and should not be made without evidence. Encouragement by the Countryside Alliance to vote for the Hunting Act's abolition is not even close to vote rigging.

Those of us who continue to support hunting (and I don't ride) will use every legal means available to show what a ill drafted and politically driven piece of legislation the law was and how unworkable in remains.

The majority of those living and working in the countryside are fed up with the present governments ignorance and lack of interest in the rural economy. Sadly, instead of holding such ignorance to account the BBC seem equally compliant

  • 28.
  • At 05:49 PM on 04 Jan 2007,
  • Andy wrote:

Just as New Labour made the taxpayer finance the Burns Report and Portcullis Hearings then ignored them because they didn't give the desired result, people are calling foul over the fact that the vote was advertised and the majority bothered to actually vote for this illiberal, unenforceable law to be repealed. A lot of people (450,000 or so?) bothered to travel to London to demonstrate they didn't want hunting banned in the first place, let alone by such a badly drafted piece of legislation. Nobody forced anybody to vote. That they did, showed it mattered to them. Oh, and let's not forget that when hunting (not the ban) came top of the Great British Icons, that wasn't allowed, either! Now who is rigging the results?

  • 29.
  • At 06:16 PM on 04 Jan 2007,
  • John Brigg wrote:

To avoid accusations that I had been unduly influenced by Countryside Alliance or anyone else, I registered my vote to abolish the Hunting Act as soon as I heard the Today programme and long before CA put their advice on their website. So at least one vote was a sincerely held view that this is a badly drafted, unenforcible law that should be abolished

  • 30.
  • At 06:22 PM on 04 Jan 2007,
  • Sally Jones wrote:

Yes it is a silly unworkable law, and that is what the flawed internet poll reflected.

For all the time this issue has taken up, still there is the mis-conception; amongst politicians, tv programme makers and the general population - that the issue is a ban on fox hunting - it is not.

The issue is a ban on hunting with dogs - and that includes the hunting on foot with small beagle hounds by ordinary country people (all ages including school children, all genders, income bands, race, and ability/disability) who spending a winter Saturday afternoon following on foot (good exercise) a pack of small beagle hounds hunting hare - the true art of venery - not "toffs on horses".

Since the ban, Beaglers continue the art of hunting by scent on a laid trail. Instead of the beagle hounds following the scent of a live hare, which cleverly and usually gets away, the beagle hounds hunt out the scent trail laid by the Hunt Staff of a hare that someone else has shot and offered for sale on a market stall.

All that Parliamentary time to achieve that outcome is silly, and therefore to the detriment of the current government.

  • 31.
  • At 07:41 PM on 04 Jan 2007,
  • G Davies wrote:

Interesting to note that nearly all the posts here are pro-hunting. The fact is that it's a stupid law and antis like the League Against Cruel Sports amount to a few chippy little people who don't understand the countryside and don't intend to.

Some of the newspapers seem to give the impression that we were all herded like sheep by the Countryside Alliance into voting to repeal the ban on hunting.

I was not "manipulated". I just want to get hunting back to where it was before New Labour started bossing us all about.

I'm a CA member, and found out about the vote on the CA website. I hate the ban, fought it, and still fight it.

But I still voted to repeal the EU act.

  • 34.
  • At 10:01 PM on 04 Jan 2007,
  • paulo dipoggio wrote:

I listen to Radio 4 twice a day while commuting and heard the Countryside Alliance's spokesman's well made case.

As a result I voted for him/their cause, nothwithstanding the other "good causes"

Your comments suggest that if you don't want to hear an answer you don't like, don't ask that question.

Your comments do little to help the independence/acusations of left wing tendencies of the BBC
Perhaps you ought to ask Tony or his friends for some advice - dare I say you obviously didn't take it before requesting this poll?

Seasons Greetings anyway, and all given in good heart as you intended!

Incidentally I have no political or hunting allegiances, but am becoming more inclined to say Tally Ho by the day!!

  • 35.
  • At 11:29 AM on 05 Jan 2007,
  • Alexander Lewis Jones wrote:

Isn't "getting your vote out" an important part of polling day activities in regular elections? How is this any different?
Clearly, a distinction needs to be drawn between encouraging people to vote - which is perfectly valid - and other activities such as voting more than once or voting on behalf of another person.

Could it be just plain and simple that a lot of people voted for repeal of the hunting bill? Yes, the CA did put it on their website but that didn't stop any other organisation doing the same. Time to stop analysing and believe the people.

  • 37.
  • At 02:37 AM on 08 Jan 2007,
  • Bernard wrote:

I have allready sent a reply to Mark E, but it seems like Ceri did not like it. It was not published.

You deserve an answer from me Mark, so I shall try again.

Mark, you wrote:

"I am not sure how it can be considered true democracy if the views of 2 people could over-ride the views of 7.

And I would also disagree with this being the way that George W Bush become president of the USA - at least in the US elections both candidates got about 50% of the vote each. I think the better case would be the UK elections where Labour won a "landslide" with the majority of people who voted voting against them."

When I said "this is true democracy" I was being sarcastic. Of course it is not true democracy. It is no sort of democracy when the minority vote 'takes the day'.

As for the US elections. Greg Pallast did an excellent report for the BBC on the 2001 US election 'farce'. If the BBC do not have it up to watch, do a Google video search you will find it on there. I think maybe it will open your eyes a tad, as to what democracy has become.

I agree with you about how 'New' Labour won, but that needs a change in our system of voting. They did not win by scamming, they won playing fairly, sorry to say.

I hope my answer to you is posted this time Mark.

A word about fox hunting; I think fox hunting is cruel; I would never take part in it.

Do I think I have the right to tell other people they cannot fox hunt?


  • 38.
  • At 04:58 PM on 08 Jan 2007,
  • Oliver Barratt wrote:

I voted to repeal the hunting ban by telephone as soon I had memorised the number from Today, and long before I saw the Countryside Alliance's e-mail.

There were several bad laws to vote to repeal, but this is the worst. People who are, understandably, opposed to fox hunting should not do it, and do not need a law to prevent them.

  • 39.
  • At 07:22 PM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • Lizzie Bennett wrote:

You evidently think that the Hunting Act should not have been the one that most people voted for - so why include it in the shortlist?! If more people vote to scrap an Act that you happen to disagree with, this doesn't mean that the vote was rigged in some way. It is true that the Alliance was encouraging members to vote to scrap the Hunting Ban - I myself received an email about it - but by no means was this anything more than a suggestion, or anything more than what any organisation set up to defend causes such as this would do.

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